Return of Scarnecchia and Health Two Biggest Issues
The Patriots head into training camp in just a few weeks and there should be no shortage of competition at a number of spots. As a lead-in to the beginning of camp, we’ll break down the positions and give our take on who is a lock, a near lock for the 53-man roster and who is on the bubble. Next up is the Offensive Line.
Bill Belichick likes to say that the spring’s OTAs and Minicamp is a learning exercise and that the real competition begins in training camp. While that is true to an extent, with 89 players on the current roster, a minimum of 36 of these will be cut. That doesn’t take into consideration the tweaking that goes on during the season after the initial 53-man roster is completed.
So next on deck are the big bodies on the Offensive Line. The team is banking heavily on the return of positional coach Dante Scarnecchia who was retired for two years. He’s a tough taskmaster who demands the most from his charges. The health of this group is a big question mark; injuries ravaged them and the protection of QB Tom Brady steadily got worse as the season progressed.
So who’s locked in and who’s on the bubble?
Dante Scarnecchia returns to be the Pats OL coach after he retired two years ago. (USA TODAY Images)
Roster Locks: Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason, David Andrews, Jonathan Cooper
Health is the key here, Solder was lost in Dallas Week 5 for the season with a torn bicep. Vollmer battled injuries throughout the campaign and has knee and back issues. But if both are healthy they’ll be your starting tackles. One would have thought that the tackle position would have been addressed in either free agency and the draft but it was not. We’ll see how that turns out later this year.
The Pats didn’t draft Thuney to sit on the pine, and with Mason, Jackson and Kline MIA this spring, he took the starting reps at left guard whenever Brady or Garoppolo was on the field. He even took a few at center. Mason finally appeared in the last spring workout and had 10 starts as a rookie. Coming from the running game of Georgia Tech, he’s an excellent drive blocker but as one would expect, had issues with his pass blocking. Andrews, who started all the games early last season and played fairly well is undersized but tough. In a surprise move, he was getting the starting reps over Bryan Stork this spring…something to keep an eye on.
Cooper was a top draft pick for the Cardinals before injuries derailed his career there. With the aforementioned players out this spring, he got the starter’s reps at right guard. The Pats are hoping that Scarnecchia can rekindle his professional career.
Nate Solder returns after going on IR after Week 5 in 2015. (USA TODAY Images)
Near Roster Locks: Bryan Stork, Marcus Cannon, LaAdrian Waddle
Stork, who played so well as a rookie at center, missed the first six weeks of the season on IR-Designated to Return and struggled as he had health issues of his own last year. Stork even played at right tackle against the Giants as Cameron Fleming and Marcus Cannon struggled. It will be interesting to watch the competition between Stork and Andrews this summer. With Thuney providing added insurance, the pivot position should be in good shape.
Cannon, is the ultimate head scratcher for this team, but Bill Belichick and Scarnecchia love this kid. He was ineffective last season when pressed into starting duty and was just abused in the AFC Championship Game in Denver. As the saying goes, we’ll see how it plays out on the field.
Waddle has the opportunity to seize the swing tackle position. He too was hurt against the Cowboys and his shoulder injury sidelined him. But the Patriots gave him a two-year contract this offseason and he also has the capability to be an extra blocking tight end in short yardage.
On the Bubble: Tre’ Jackson, Josh Kline, Cameron Fleming, Ted Karras
Jackson was a rookie draft pick (4th Rd, 111th overall), a year ago and had nine starts while appearing in 13 games. Prior to coming out in the 2015 NFL Draft, he had knee issues and he missed time with those during the season as well as missing both playoff games. If he’s healthy he’ll compete for the right guard spot, where he saw all of his action a year ago. But he missed all of the spring, so his status will bear watching once training camp begins.
Kline is a guy who the Patriots traditionally love, an undersized but tough player. He too missed all of the spring. With the additions of Thuney and Cooper along the interior of the line, he may find himself on the outside looking in.
Fleming flopped as a swing tackle a year ago, like Cannon was ineffective when pressed into service. But the last offseason, the Patriots fiddled with the idea of moving him to guard. He was training to do just that, cutting down on his weight a bit and improving his quickness. We saw the video of his workouts last spring and it seemed he was destined to move inside.
But the team drafted Mason and Jackson last spring and Fleming went back outside. The results were not good. Perhaps with a full offseason with Scarnecchia, Fleming can get his game back together. The swing tackle position will again go thru Cannon, Waddle and Fleming.
Karras is a tough kid that has a lot of upper body strength, completing 32 reps on the bench press at his Pro Day this spring. The 6th round draft pick has an NFL pedigree and is a good pass protector but isn’t very athletic and may find himself a practice squad candidate unless he can shine in limited opportunities.
Outside Looking in…. Longshots: Chris Barker, Keavon Milton
Both of these players have been let go in the past and face long odds of making the roster out of training camp.
Barker was originally claimed off of waivers from the Miami Dolphins in the 2013 season and appeared in four games. During the 2014 season, he split time between the practice squad and the active roster and appeared in two games. Last season he was signed to the active roster for the Week 10 game against the Giants before being released and signed back to the practice squad.
Milton was a UDFA in 2013 and was signed by the New Orleans Saints. He was among the final cuts of the Saints and was signed by the Browns and appeared in eight games with no starts that season. He then was released by the Browns at the end of training camp in 2014 and signed to Seattle’s practice squad. Released in September 2015 he was signed by the Patriots to their practice squad in November. The 6’4, 320-pound Milton was a blocking tight end at Louisiana-Monroe who made the transition to tackle